How to Stand Out in a Crowded Marketplace
In the SUP and Kayak business, most shops or businesses do the exact same thing which is usually having a brick and mortar location, rentals, retail sales and lessons. That model works but is very expensive, time consuming and can be stressful managing employees, buying and selling gear and dealing with the usual woes of weather which affects business considerably. Some love that type of work and others do it as they don't what else to do. In the Pacific NW where I am, outdoor businesses then need to figure out how to survive in the 'off season.' Our usual peak season is only 2-3 months long in summer, depending on the weather. Some offer skiing and kite surfing retail during that time, others shut down and leave to warmer regions.
When I went into business as a SUP instructor few were doing it here. That was 2010. Now Seattle now has 10 businesses focusing on SUP or offering it in addition to kayaking or rowing. In addition to the 10 there are another 5-10 retail locations that sell SUPs, not including online businesses.
That's a lot of saturation mostly operating mostly during summer only. When I got into business, I didn't have deep pockets so I didn't have the ability to secure an expensive lake side shop, or even as many do, go buy 10-20 boards, a trailer then operate full service tent all summer. Plus that sounds stressful (to me), maybe profitable but no guarantees. With a kayaking background I've learned a lot of efficient paddling techniques that really help out my customers, so wanted to find a method to share those.
Being Unique & Following Your Path
I decided to folllow the path of a successful kayaking business here that offers small classes originally without a lakeside presence, shop or staff. Being an introvert this model also allows me to have more 1-1 time with students vs being overwhelmed by big volume. Several years later, i'm relieved that this model has worked for me as I'm not only operating in a way that fits my personality but we're doing well and loving it.
Our business is based upon offering small individualized classes and tours with a big focus on safety and using common sense for SUP and kayaking. Many don't take safety in SUP very seriously, but we do and it's paying off for us. Not everyone who wants to paddle is keen on the minimalist t-shirt and shorts, no leash or PFD only point of view. Here the water is cold most of the year, and we've taught our students that wearing appropriate water temp clothing allows them to relax on their boards vs feeling stiff because they don't want to fall in. As a result they'll push themselves more becoming better paddlers and many are now interested in paddling all year, thus providing us income in November and January when most shops are closed.
A guy who works in a local Surf/SUP shop was quoted as saying 'Rob is too safe'. The benefit of the safe guy is that I get the folks who had bad experiences with the volume shops, or are concerned with their balance, think they may look bad in public, are overweight thus can't fit on most rental boards, are over 70, or have various water based phobias. Being dyslexic, learning wasn't easy for me, so I've learned to be very patient, which has payed off with regular business, great referrals and reviews. Many of my customers may simply prefer a small group or 1-1 and as a result appreciate the ttime we spend with them. Offering smaller classes means we charge more but it all works out as the above folks appreciate what they're getting and come back for more training.
Here's 4 tips on standing out in the crowd:
- Got 5 shops in your town all doing the same thing? What are they not doing that you could do better? Not every customer wants the same experience. Some want small classes, advanced training, or unique classes.
- In a seasonal SUP/Kayak region? Become a mobile business to keep your overhead down. We're mobile. I use my Subaru Forester with 66" rack bars which can carry 8 boards. Aside from corporate groups, 99% of my classes are 1-7 people so we rarely need a lot of gear. This also means buying and maintaining less gear. For corporate gigs we outsource for more gear adding that to the budget. This year we're adding inflatables which can fit in my car.
- Offer unique classes no one else if providing. We teach how to paddle river SUP in tidal rapids, SUP surfing on the coast, Freighter Wave & Tug surfing, advanced skill training, race training and downwinding. No one else here is doing anything close here. We thought about Yoga but didn't follow through, too much additional overhead and programming.
- Become known for a specific specialization. I'm the safe guy and the small class guy. Because I'm patient I get a lot of folks who need more attention and/or an instructor paying attention.
Unique classes that few offer: SUP fishing, paddling with your pet, SUP yoga for seniors, planning trips, SUP travel, marine navigation, rock gardening/rock hopping, boat wake surfing, racing in bumps, etc.